That Big Phone Company and the Future of Cloud Telephony

ATT NY Times article

 

“There is a need to retool yourself, and you should not expect to stop … if we can’t [learn new technologies], mark my words, in three years we’ll be managing decline.”

Randall Stephenson. Chairman and CEO, AT&T.

 

“I’m riding the copper train all the way down.”

Kevin Stephenson. AT&T Customer Service Technician.

 

Last week, The New York Times published an outstanding article on two brothers—one, a veteran technician for AT&T; the other, his brother and the phone provider’s Chief Executive.

The article, by NYT Tech Editor Quentin Hardy, is an insightful study of the men, their interests and motivations, and the career arcs that have them functioning in two very different roles at the same company. One thing Randall and Kevin Stephenson agree on: The demise of copper is inevitable; the rise of cloud telephony just as sure.

The article’s real focus though, is Randall Stephenson’s push for AT&T workers to retool—both to prepare themselves for the virtual future of telephony platforms, and to position the traditional phone company to compete with others like Google, Amazon and Netflix, who are already equipped to the max with skilled technologists and on leading-edge platforms.

The Complexity of the Shift

I hope you’ll read Hardy’s article. It’s a complex snapshot of the state of the industry and a fascinating read. At Phone.com, we work every day with many of the technologies that AT&T is transitioning to. We understand the intricacies and challenges of cloud telephony, so the difficulty of shifting such a large workforce over to new skills and tools is not lost on us.

As you read the article, here are some of the points I think are particularly compelling:

  • The obvious shift from communicating across a physical, wired network to newer fiber-based cloud telephony platforms.
  • Older tech workers at AT&T have been with the company an average of 22 years. Not only does this indicate a wealth of knowledge and skill; it also presents an enormous challenge to get long-timers to adopt new perspectives and learn new skills.
  •  The sheer dollar value of AT&T’s annual investment in new technology: $20 billion spent last year on digital services; $63 billion to purchase DirecTV; and the $8,000 per employee that AT&T will reimburse each year for learning.
  • AT&T executives are wisely taking a long-term view on the education of their workforce. They understand that a certain percentage of experienced workers will retool, but that others will not, and that the company will ultimately lose those workers. With a smaller, more-skilled residual workforce, AT&T will be able to invest in new platforms and more technologically skilled workers.
  • AT&T’s Vision 2020 retooling initiative can be seen as a reaction to the market, rather than a defining of it. The phone giant’s competitors are giants too, and they’re already well versed in the technologies that AT&T is starting towards.
  • The AT&T workers profiled in the article illustrate the importance of developing a growth mindset. Hard as it is to break out of the comfort of what you know, if there is one thing to understand, even for those of us working with leading-edge technologies, it’s that we cannot ever stop learning and growing.
  • AT&T targets the year 2020 to have their cloud-based platform in place. Yes, Internet telephony providers like Phone.com already offer cloud phone services, but we recognize that not everyone is ready to transition. It will take time for the bulk of users to move to cloud telephony, and for the market as a whole to shift.
  • Though the bulk of our copper networks will go away, it’s important to note that there will always be a need for highly skilled systems technicians to set up and maintain the networks on which cloud telephony runs.

And remote communities will always need well-maintained wired networks to some degree. There is beauty in the craftmanship that lays them, and in how long they last and continue to support us. To quote Kevin Stephenson, “I go out to houses away from the cities, and there’s not a lot of fiber there.” Wire, in one form or another, is here to stay.

These points are all present in Quentin Hardy’s article, and they illustrate the complexity of shifting technology platforms in general. We hope you’ll enjoy reading it, and look forward to your comments.